Public legal education at HMP Oakwood

In this series of blog posts, Paul Dale, an Associate Lecturer at The Open University, final year law students Jon Stitcher, Lucy Tomlinson and Sean Harker, and  ‘prisoner mentor’, Malcolm, reflect on their experiences of teaching public legal education in Her Majesty’s Prison Oakwood.

From left to right – Tammia, St Giles Trust; Paul, OU Associate Lecturer; and final year students, Jon, Lucy and Sean

Paul

I’m Paul, the academic lead for the Open Justice project at HMP Oakwood in Wolverhampton; a joint venture with the St Giles Trust. Over the course of March and April, I was delighted to lead three final year law students to present legal education at Oakwood. The scheme is very much in its infancy, so our remit was to have an initial meeting with St Giles ‘prisoner mentors’ to discover any general legal issues that our students could research and present findings on. Three students were chosen out of some thirty applicants. Our first prison visit in March was a real eye opener for students. We met Steve and Tammia, from the St Giles Trust, who gave the students a tour of the prison. We were able to see inside the wings and meet prisoners, one of whom offered to show us his cell. Any hesitations or stereotypical views the students had of prisoners were soon dissipated. We then had a more formal meeting with six ‘prisoner mentors’. These were guys who were on longer term sentences and assisted others within the prison not only for rehabilitation purposes, but with day to day life. They were a very positive bunch of guys and enjoyed engaging with the wider community – two were OU graduates who had studied in prison! They identified nine issues for us to research, with a deeper concentration on joint enterprise, indeterminate sentences, the destruction of Crown Court transcripts and racial bias in sentencing. The meeting went well, and we stayed behind afterwards for coffee and a chat. On our second meeting we presented some initial findings and were also guided by their own research. Our third meeting was the presentation of our research and we gave them a folder of our findings. Overall, we established a good rapport with these guys, on all of our meetings we stayed behind for a more informal chat. The students were able to research new areas of law, but now from a more practical point of view instead a purely academic one. The prisoner mentors were already very knowledgeable on the law and these issues, and though they knew many of the fundamental issues involved, we were able to provide some nuanced views and introduce new lines of research for them to follow. Our remit was not to give legal advice, but to point them in directions for further legal research. It was a privilege to be given the chance to be able to meet people who had been directly affected by the legal issues that have been studied on the LLB. For instance, a number of them were convicted under old ‘joint enterprise’ rules that have been changed in the recent Supreme Court case of R v Jogee (2016). Lord Neuberger held in this case that previous court decisions ‘had taken a wrong turn’ for some thirty years in their application of joint enterprise. So, now meeting offenders who had been subject to this misapplication of law brings knowledge learned from studies to whole new level. Additionally, one of the prisoner mentors, Malcolm (an OU graduate who has authored a blog post here) was a party on the prisoner voting cases that have been back and forth in the Supreme Court and ECtHR. It was informative, for both the students and myself, to get an understanding of practical application of the legal issues that we have researched. If there is one thing that I will take away from the project, on a more personal level, it was the realisation that these guys were something more than their label. It is easy to categorise offenders based on their crimes, and label them because of a serious crime that they have committed. However, I got a sense of the individual behind their crime and subsequent label; they were a delight to meet, all had very positive attitudes to life in general, relished in their own personal development and had hope for their future. I do not think that I have met such a positive group of people and I feel privileged to have been part of the Open Justice project. As an added bonus and a direct result of the project, one of the students has a potential opportunity of working with offenders through the St Giles Trust in the future. Though the project is in its infancy, we can hopefully take it forward in years to come so that more students can gain benefit on both a professional and personal level. I’d like to thank HMP Oakwood for their support in the project, Tammia and Steve from the St Giles Trust for their organisation and enthusiastic approach, Jon, Lucy and Sean for their hard work and professionalism in their legal research and the St Giles Trust ‘prisoner mentors’ for their welcome and hospitality. Everyone worked together to create what turned in to worthwhile project.

Jon

Today I have finished my research project with the St Giles Trust at HMP Oakwood working with Prisoners. It has been an incredibly eye-opening experience. I went into this project with an archaic opinion of what prison life would be like. I was expecting it to be more like the TV show Porridge or the film The Shawshank Redemption. The reality is vastly different. Yes, we were working with the highly trusted prisoners, men who’d used their time in prison to great effect. They’d taken rehabilitation courses, they’d educated themselves, but more than that, they were educating and mentoring other prisoners. My first moments inside the prison I was quite apprehensive, we were taken on to a prison block where the prisoners were wandering around, quite freely and I hadn’t noticed any guards. But it didn’t take long for me to realise that I was perfectly safe and when interacting with the prisoners whom we were there to assist, I often didn’t realise they were prisoners but thought they were St Giles staff members. We chatted with these men, they told us their issues and we went away and we researched these issues. The whole time I was doing this, I very selfishly was thinking how good this would look on my CV. By the last meeting with the prisoners I’d come to realise how awful that was of me. When we finished our work, we left the prison to carry on with our lives, our degrees, our futures. For some of the people we were helping the future is so uncertain. They will remain in prison, some on indeterminate sentences and as much as I wanted to give them good news, unfortunately the outlook is quite bleak. I have taken so many positives out of this experience. On a purely selfish note, I have enhanced my CV and gained valuable experience in understanding how life in a prison works. But, I also feel like I have contributed to helping these men by taking the time to research issues of huge importance to them. But they have changed me, my views on prisoners and prison life are now much higher. I no longer think that we should be locking people up and throwing away the key but that prison should be a fully integrated rehabilitation programme working towards re-integrating these people back into society. I want to thank the Open University for selecting me for this project, for the St Giles Trust for running this pilot scheme and for working so closely with us, but mostly I want to thank the prisoners I was helping. They have made me sit up and think about the world and reconsider my own future in law. But also to reconsider my future as a person as my outlook on certain things has now changed forever. This was such an enriching experience and one that could not possibly be achieved through writing an essay.

Malcolm – HMP Oakwood – St Giles Trust ‘prisoner mentor’ (and OU graduate)

Over the last six weeks the Open University visited Oakwood in the form of a lecturer and three diligent students from their Law facility. A group of us were invited by our IAG (Information Advice and Guidance) Tutor and St Giles partner, to meet the students and pose questions of law or special interests. This was not only a novel way to have legal questions answered but an opportunity to engage with students form the community and an OU lecturer who turned out to be extremely pleasant and very knowledgeable. As a group we decided to task the students with 4 lines of enquiry these being issues that we found of interest either because they affected us personally or because we though they would be of use to the wider Oakwood community; the subjects were; the IPP sentence, Joint Enterprise, Racial profiling (for those that come into contact with the criminal justice system) and lastly, the subject of court transcripts and who has access to them. The OU group visited us on three occasions the first being an introduction and opportunity for us to set their task, the interim visit to give a progress report, indulge in our company and eat our biscuits and the final session to give a verbal report of their findings and to hand over a well presented package of information relating to the lines of enquiry and any other related pieces of information they felt would be useful to us. As an exercise in the breaking down of barriers between the incarcerated and the community it was extremely successful, the students and their lecturer were delightful and spending time with them was a great distraction form the normal routine. The students assured us that their perception of a ‘prisoner’ (the word is pejorative but serves in this instance) was much changed and they enjoyed the encounter. But as an exercise in the dissemination of new and ground breaking legal facts it was not that successful. The reason for my negative remark is in no way a reflection on the work done by the diligent students but merely a reflection on the access we now have to information; the residents here have a telephone in their room and most know someone they can phone who has internet access. Most questions can be answered in this way from the comfort of your room. The staff here at Oakwood are also able to assist in the provision of information and if it is pertinent to you rehabilitation they will download relevant data upon request. However, we are extremely grateful to the students and lecturer for giving their time and resources to provide us with the information we requested. We all took great pleasure in the exercise and hope that further engagement with the OU will be possible. We wish the students luck in their studies and hope they all reach their goals.

Lucy

Throughout March and April, we attended HMP Oakwood to work with prisoner mentors and the St Giles Trust to research any legal issues the mentors suggested. This included joint enterprise, the imprisonment for public protection sentence (IPP’s), racial profiling within the criminal justice system and the destruction of court transcripts amongst other smaller topics. Prior to our first visit, I believed that all prisoners deserved to be in jail and that they should ‘do the time’ for the crimes they’ve committed. However, I tried to keep an open mind upon arrival at the prison and form an educated opinion after meeting the mentors. Which is exactly what they were, not prisoners, mentors. I’ve never met such polite humans! The second they entered the room they introduced themselves and shook your hand and offered you a cuppa and a biscuit… amazing! Instantly you forgot you were in a prison and it felt like you were in their home (which is technically true!) and this made the discussions we had over the next two visits so much easier, even when we were feeding back negative findings. Very quickly we discovered some of the mentors we spoke to were serving life sentences without even committing any crimes, which further proved my point of not judging a book by its cover. The mentors were a credit to HMP Oakwood and the St Giles Trust. Working with the St Giles Trust was brilliant. I had no idea that they existed until working on this project with them, and I’m very glad I got the opportunity to do so. Steve and Tammia were very welcoming and ensured that we didn’t just see the good side of the prison but also the not so good side when taking us on tours of the prison, which I really appreciated. During the tours, many of the prisoners that Tammia helped rehabilitate greeted her with such respect just passing by and this triggered my interest in wanting to work with St Giles Trust (specifically wanting Tammia’s job!). It must be so fulfilling to be able to see your hard work walking about the prison and this made me appreciate the work St Giles Trust do even more. Although we didn’t necessarily better the prison mentors’ legal knowledge, I’m very grateful to have had this experience and it’s something I can take with me to job interviews because I feel I gained so much knowledge and practical experience. It was so fun researching topics like joint enterprise, especially as it is currently in the news, but I was also bettering my legal knowledge on topics I was unaware of. I’ll miss our visits to HMP Oakwood, after every visit I was bursting with excitement about what I’d experienced throughout my ‘days in prison’. Big thanks to the Open University for creating this pilot project, enabling us to gain such valuable experience which will help in so many ways in our future endeavours. Also thank you to the St Giles Trust, specifically Steve and Tammia for letting us be a part of your team and taking time out of your busy days to accompany us and unlock and lock again every door we walked through! HMP Oakwood, thank you, it’s been a pleasure and the best experience I’ve had so far!

Sean

I was delighted when I found out I had been chosen to participate in the HMP Oakwood project as I thought taking part would be hugely beneficial to my studies and help enhance my experience section on my CV. Throughout the three visits I feel as though I have learnt far more about prison and prisoners than I ever could just by reading materials. I found many of my prejudices regarding offenders challenged and I now have a completely different view on the matter (obviously taking into consideration I met just a handful of people). Taking part in the actual research helped me understand some of the deeper social issues associated with offenders. My primary task was producing a report on the systematic destruction of Crown Court audio files and records. I found this extremely interesting as this is a subject I would know nothing about only by following the curriculum of my course – and I certainly wouldn’t have done the research just to satisfy my own curiosity. My other secondary tasks were to create a report and presentation on the negative impacts of long term sentencing and on discrimination in sentencing. Whilst I already knew about these issues as they are highly documented, I enjoyed the research nonetheless and feel that they have deepened my understanding. Throughout the whole experience I have learnt how to coordinate my time to juggle the demands of the work and to take more pride in work that won’t be marked as I got the opportunity to deliver my findings in person. Actually meeting the prisoners face to face has helped me with speaking to groups (if I can deliver a presentation in prison than anywhere else will be easy!). To sum up, this project has helped put a lot of my previous legal study into perspective and has certainly had an impact on my future. I plan on attempting to do more volunteer work with the St Giles Trust. I can, and I highly recommend this opportunity to be extended to other students and for those students to take it.

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